TOPICS > Politics

In Iraq, Violence Falls but Political Gridlock Remains

November 20, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Violence in Iraq is on the decline but sharp internal political divisions continue to hinder the Iraqi government and its efforts to make substantive legislative progress. Two Middle East experts discuss Iraq's political situation and how the government might break out of its stalemate.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: By nearly every measure, the level of violence in Iraq seems to be on the decline, for now. But what has become of the next hurdle, the plan to put a working government in place? For that, we turn to two experts who have been keeping track of what has turned into a long-running political stalemate in Baghdad.

Feisal Istrabadi served as Iraq’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations until this fall. He’s now a visiting professor of law at Indiana University in Bloomington. And Juan Cole is a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. Istrabadi, so we have heard that the violence is down. The U.S. military says it’s down 55 percent since last June. What happened to the political piece?

FEISAL ISTRABADI, Indiana University, Bloomington: Well, the political piece is a very complicated part of this. There has been very little progress, I’m sorry to say, on some of the large political compromises.

Fundamentally, there are parties whose bases were sectarian and ethnic groupings, and rather than as sort of pan-Iraqi agenda. These were the parties that were elected into the parliament. These parties have found it very difficult to make compromises on fundamental issues, although I still am hopeful that the existence of this sort of space, which the surge seems to have managed very effectively to make, will allow for the kind of compromises that I think need to be made.

GWEN IFILL: Juan Cole, we heard today of this brewing feud which seems to have erupted between Prime Minister Maliki and Vice President Hashimi. Is that an example of what Feisal Istrabadi is talking about?

JUAN COLE, University of Michigan: It’s so discouraging that these high Iraqi officials who are presiding over a country that really is broken, which has millions of pressing problems, are behaving like kindergartners.

First, al-Maliki last spring wouldn’t meet with his vice president, who’s from the Sunni fundamentalist party, Tariq Al-Hashimi. They couldn’t find time for each other, and then al-Hashimi got in a snit about that and his party withdrew from the government, so it’s not a national unity government anymore.

And now Maliki is saying al-Hashimi is not — as vice president, he has the responsibility of signing off on legislation, that there are 26 bills with him that he’s refusing to sign off on. So they’re blaming the stagnation on one another. They’re absolutely refusing to compromise with one other.

Al-Maliki, when the Sunni parties withdrew from his cabinet, instead of going to them and saying, “What do you want? How could I bring you back in? What compromises are necessary here?” Al-Maliki fired them, basically, said they were absentee cabinet members, because they had resigned and refused to come to their offices. And this denies them their pensions and other prerogatives. So the whole thing seems to be very petty.

Structural problems for government

Feisal Istrabadi
Former Deputy Ambassador to U.N., Iraq
Each of these parties was elected based upon their differences. And so once they get to power, they find it very difficult to make the compromises necessary. And a lot of it is personal, and a lot of it is very petty.

GWEN IFILL: Is it pettiness, Mr. Istrabadi? Or is there something more fundamental at the root of this about the structure that was put in place or that people were trying to put in place for this new government?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I think there are structural problems. Fundamentally, as I said, you have parties that posited themselves, on all sides, either as ethic parties, which is what the Kurds did, or as confessional parties, sectarian parties, which is what the Arab Shia and Arab Sunni of Iraq did.

And these were the parties that unfortunately in the system that we inherited from the Bremer vice regency, these were the parties that were then elected.

And so, in a sense, they were -- each of these parties was elected based upon their differences. And so once they get to power, they find it very difficult to make the compromises necessary. And a lot of it is personal, and a lot of it is very petty, as Professor Cole has pointed out.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you, Mr. Istrabadi, continuing on this point, to just tick off a couple of the goals that people had set for this new government. One of them was the oil revenue sharing law. What became of that?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I have to say, I mean -- and this was, in fact, a point I wanted to make, but then you started to ask another question. There are some very important issues that face Iraq, and there are some less important issues. In my judgment, the oil revenue law as such is less important.

The fact of the matter is a modus vivendi has developed between the parties so that there's actual sharing of oil revenues going on. There's not a law, but more importantly than merely passing a law and ignoring it, which is part of the history of the region -- not just Iraq -- is that, in lieu of passing a law, there is actually a modus vivendi between the parties on this issue.

What's more critical to me, however, is that issues of the structural defects that have arisen in Iraq in the last two or three years are not being addressed, not whether there's a foreign investment law or an oil revenue sharing law, but structural defects which led, for instance, very nearly in the last few weeks to a Turkish invasion in the north, because the constitution created such a weak government in Baghdad that it is not an effective interlocutor, in my judgment, regionally on the international stage.

These are the structural issues that I think we should be looking at. And they're far more important, in my judgment, than some of these other issues.

Iraqi leaders want it all

Juan Cole
University of Michigan
When we talk about the surge being successful, we should keep in mind that it's only a relative success. There are nearly 400 attacks a month in Baghdad. There's attacks, 100 a week, in al-Anbar province. A thousand people are dying a month.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I wonder if Mr. Cole agrees with you. It seems that the United States was putting a lot of its eggs in the basket of getting these benchmarks met. Were they off on the wrong tangent, in your opinion?

JUAN COLE: Well, no, I think the benchmarks were worthy, and they were worked out, in fact, with the participation of the existing Iraqi government, and they were signed off on by Mr. al-Maliki. But there are structural problems here. The problem is that I don't see how you will get past them, given the current configuration of things.

And so the Americans really have to play with the pieces that are on the chess board. You can't invent new pieces. And the problem is that the actors we have on the political stage now don't seem very interested in compromise.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me. When you say the actors on the stage, are you talking about the prime minister, the vice president, the U.S.?

JUAN COLE: All of them, yes, the vice president, and the prime minister, and even the regional government leaders, like Massoud Barzani. They're all maximalists. They want it all.

And so Barzani has, in the Kurdistan Regional Government up north, has a big map in his mind of what Kurdistan will look like after everything is over, and it includes a lot of the rest of Iraq and maybe some other countries, too. And he's coddling these PKK guerillas and baiting Turkey, which may well invade and destabilize things.

And then al-Maliki has not really reached out to the Sunni Arab community. He's had some talks with members of these tribal awakening groups, but he seems to be more interested in playing the Sunnis off against each other, really, than in making genuine compromises with them.

And then the Sunni Arabs, I think, still just don't get it, that they're 20 percent of the population and their former dominance of the country is over with, but that they can get rich, and be well off, and have productive lives, if only they find ways of compromising with the new situation.

You know, when we talk about the surge being successful, we should keep in mind that it's only a relative success. There are nearly 400 attacks a month in Baghdad. There's attacks, 100 a week, in al-Anbar province. A thousand people are dying a month.

I mean, in all of the North Ireland troubles over decades I think over 3,000 died, so that number is dying every three months here. So it's not a calm situation. But the situation has improved to the point where you could imagine imaginative politicians, people who are willing to reach out, if you had a Nelson Mandela or even somebody who would trade horses, like a Lyndon Johnson, who would go out and take advantage of this thing to make a deal.

Playing with the pieces on hand

Feisal Istrabadi
Former Deputy Ambassador for U.N., Iraq
The United States has actually played a destructive role in failing to encourage movements within parliament through constitutional means of a realignment whereby centrists and moderates can emerge.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you both. Finally, Mr. Istrabadi, starting with you, does the U.S. have a constructive role that it can play to get this thing moved off the dime? And lacking a Nelson Mandela figure and having to deal with the hand you're dealt in the person of Mr. Maliki, can the U.S. afford for him to fail at this?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, a U.S. ambassador, Frank Richardoni, once said, "If there ever was an Iraqi Mandela, he died under torture in a Baathist prison." We have the hand we're dealt.

Professor Cole is right. We should play with all the pieces on the chessboard. I think that the United States doesn't realize it has -- and I'm sorry, I'm not a chess player, I think there are 16 pieces on each side -- the United States needs to realize that there is a full panoply of pieces on the chessboard.

There are alternatives. And if one individual cannot get the job done, there are alternatives.

The United States has actually played a destructive role in failing to encourage movements within parliament through constitutional means of a realignment whereby centrists and moderates can emerge. The United States has put its eggs in a particular basket. And I think that it's time, perhaps, to think about creating that sort of middle, which exists in parliament, but it simply has to be tapped into and encouraged.

Revising laws on ex-Baathists

Juan Cole
University of Michigan
They really do need to revise their laws on excluding the ex-Baathists from public life. There are literally tens of thousands of capable Sunni Arabs that have been excluded by those laws.

GWEN IFILL: And Mr. Cole?

JUAN COLE: Well, you know, they really do need to revise their laws on excluding the ex-Baathists from public life. There are literally tens of thousands of capable Sunni Arabs that have been excluded by those laws.

And although the cabinet now has reported out a draft of such a revision, it's meeting deep opposition in parliament. They really do need laws on petroleum investment and petroleum revenue sharing, because nobody is going to invest in Iraq without it. And without the revenue sharing being nailed down, everybody is going to remain suspicious of one another.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Juan Cole, Mr. Feisal Istrabadi, thank you both very much.

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Thank you. It's a pleasure.